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Sometimes I don’t recognise the person looking back at me

Patricia’s long, red hair was a huge part of her identity. She shares some tips for managing your hair as it regrows.

Patricia’s long, red hair was a huge part of her identity. She tells us about her decision to shave her head before chemotherapy and shares some tips for managing your hair as it regrows.

When I was approaching my 50th birthday, I found an area of breast tissue that didn't feel quite right. It wasn’t a lump, just a thickening. My doctor referred me for tests and in early 2018 I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). I had a single mastectomy without reconstruction. The surgery revealed three small invasive areas, so I was put on a course of six cycles of chemotherapy and a year of Herceptin.

I was carried along on a tsunami of love

I was incredibly calm and accepting when I was diagnosed. It wasn't the news I wanted to hear but I took it all in my stride. On some level it wasn’t a shock – my mother had had breast cancer, and I'd lost a very good friend to it, so I’d envisaged that it could one day happen to me. However, I know it’s different for many others who can be absolutely floored by their diagnosis.

I received a huge amount of support from my family and friends. I remember that one friend told me before my tests that ‘it would be fine’, but she also said, ‘and if it’s not fine, we’ll be there for you’. I was carried along on a tsunami of love.

The hardest part came after treatment ended

Once I'd finished my active treatment, the adrenaline which had kept me going seeped away and I felt weirdly flat. I'd spent six months being the centre of attention, with people sending me good wishes and presents and generally making a fuss of me. Then suddenly I was expected to return to ‘normal’, almost as if nothing had happened. This wasn't easy as I was still feeling the physical effects of my treatment.

I had always considered my hair to be my best feature

My hair had always been long, red and wavy. It felt like a huge part of my identity, so I knew I didn't want to go through the experience of my hair falling out in handfuls. I decided to cut it all off before chemotherapy and donate it to the Little Princess Trust. I felt good that it was going to be made into a wig for someone else.

I had a big party with all my girlfriends, we drank champagne and a hairdresser cut my hair. It was quite surreal, but I was determined not to let it get me down. I quite enjoyed the drama of being bald and didn’t mind having a crew cut, but I certainly missed my hair and my old identity.

I created my new signature look during chemotherapy

Early on in chemo, I came across a wonderful person, Emily from Bravery Co, who taught me how to tie headscarves in a really cool way. That became my signature look during chemo. When my hair reached the buzz cut phase, I got a local barber to cut a shooting star into my hair at the back - it looked amazing!

Sometimes I get a jolt when I look in the mirror

I knew it was going to be difficult as my hair started growing back. It was uneven and I had bald patches that I had to colour in with eyeshadow. Now that it's coming in properly, it's a completely different colour and texture. Instead of the big, dark red curls I used to have, it is a greyish-brown and grows in tight, frizzy curls, like the texture of wool. I look like an alpaca, and not in a good way, and it's difficult to manage. It’s not a hairstyle I’d ever have chosen for myself in a million years. Often, I look in the mirror and wonder who the old lady with granny hair is looking back at me! The fact that my new look is not something I chose is the hardest part.

People I know don’t recognise me anymore

Now that my hair has started to grow back, even people I know well don’t recognise me straight away. It’s a difficult moment when this happens as it’s a reminder that I’m not who I was.

I try to remind myself that they don’t mean anything by it, and that my long, red hair is how people normally identified me. Sometimes I quite enjoy being able to go out and have some anonymity!

Patricia’s tips for managing hair regrowth

1. Try leave-in conditioner

A hairdresser I went to suggested using leave-in conditioner instead of conditioning it when I wash it. I've found that a combination of leave-in conditioner and hair gel controls the frizz a little. Cancer Hair Care also has helpful tips.

2. Embrace your new look

I can't deny that I struggle with my new look some days, but on better days I try to embrace it. During chemo I learned to go out with my head held high even though I had no hair, eyebrows or eyelashes, so I try to do the same now. Even when I'm having a really bad hair day, I look people in the eye and try to feel proud of what I've come through.

3. Try clothing looks that suit your new hair

Even though I would never have chosen my current colour or style, I make the best of it and try and make an entire look of it. I do this by dressing in a way that’s right for my new hair. Certain looks can go quite well with a short cut.

I’m drawn to edgier looks and find myself wearing leather jackets and big earrings and having a bit of fun with that. I hadn’t really bothered with earrings before because they got lost beneath all my hair, so I’ve dug some out that I haven’t worn in years and years.

4. Focus on the positives of shorter hair

There are some really good elements to having super short hair. For example, I never really knew where to put my hair when I was in bed – should it go under or on top of my pillow when I slept? Now, I don’t have that problem! It also only takes a short while to wash it, and I’m not worried about going out in the rain anymore. My first hair cut with short hair also only cost about £6!

For more hints and tips on adjusting to life after active treatment ends, download our free BECCA app:

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